From Sept. 1-26, 2015, I travelled around India with 23 other students from the University of Washington studying different manifestations of women’s leadership and entrepreneurship in the country. To see more about our experiences, visit our blog, “Half the Sky” India 2015. https://halftheskyindia2015.wordpress.com/about/
For a girl who grew up in Texas, I went to India expecting it to be utterly and completely different from everything I have ever known. It wasn’t. To my surprise, I kept seeing San Antonio everywhere, just without the beans, barbecue and beer.
The first time this happened, I was in Mumbai, a city that overwhelmed me with honking horns, unpleasant smells and masses and masses of people. After only a few days in India, I was struggling to understand how people lived in such a hot, chaotic city. Then we visited a warehouse that was producing large statues of the god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, for the city’s huge celebration in his honor, Ganesha Chaturthi. Neighborhoods compete to have the biggest and best shrine with a giant statue of the idol, and the workshop we visited was a major supplier of these statues, many of which were over 10 feet high. I had never seen anything like it.
Then, as I was surrounded by bright neon colors, hard-working artisans, and an oddly familiar sense of excitement in the air, it suddenly hit me: I felt like I was about to go to a Fiesta parade! The anticipation, the competition, the tradition – all at once, my brain saw things it recognized in the midst of something totally foreign. All at once, Mumbai started making a lot more sense to me.
The thing I love about traveling is how you switch between the thrill of seeing something completely and utterly new (or seeing something in real life that you’ve only ever seen in pictures, like the Taj Mahal) to experiencing a sensation of complete familiarity. You see the shared humanity in us all that expresses itself in the little things, whether it’s spending hours to lovingly decorate a parade float or a four-armed elephant god.
In India, I saw a lot of things I’d never seen before, like how tons (literally) of Mumbai’s laundry is washed each day by men who live in a neighborhood that is honeycombed with cement laundry vats. We saw the density of Dharavi, the slums made famous in “Slumdog Millionaire.” I visited my first mosque and rode in my first auto rickshaw. I had people ask to take a picture with me because of my curly hair and light skin. Yet in the midst of so many differences, I began to see more and more similarities in the human experience.
For example, while driving into Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat, I saw street scenes replicated the world over. It was a Friday night, the day of a festival, and families were out on the town, wearing their nice clothes, treating themselves to favorite foods, catching up with friends, and generally having a good time. I could have been observing a scene from Southtown’s First Friday, complete with cheerful strings of lights to brighten up the dark night.
Food, of course, is central to both Hispanic and Indian cultures. I suppose it isn’t entirely unexpected for two cuisines that developed primarily in extremely hot environments to have plenty in common. Every time an Indian waiter brought out small bowls of green chutneys that looked remarkably like salsa, I’d flash back to a Mexican restaurant. Instead of margaritas, I found a refreshing drink of a salted lime juice served in a glass with a bottle of soda on the side. It was a delicious way to rehydrate and replenish after hours of continuous sweating (did I mention the heat and humidity was actually worse than South Texas?)
India is a place where people put their trust in family, hospitality is sacred, and perseverance is mixed with the ability to move on to the next thing in life. Those who understand the power of education make incredible sacrifices to invest in their children’s future and ensure they get to school.
Yet any picture painted of India cannot only be of bright rosy colors – the country is constantly dealing with many problems. Poverty, lack of education and struggles over infrastructure are some issues shared with South Texas. For instance, India struggles with a 40% dropout rate by the 8th grade equivalent, but its literacy rate of 65% lags far behind the U.S. That knowledge made our tour of an Akanksha school particularly meaningful as we learned about the different ways the organization is providing high quality education to low-income children.
Within any culture, individuals react to social problems in different ways. An expert on coastal erosion told us that a common reaction to the loss of beaches by local fishing communities around Pondicherry was initially not to demand restoration like outspoken Americans would, but to think cyclically and ask themselves, “What’s the next way we can make a living?”
In contrast to the “go with the flow” mentality, we also got the incredible opportunity to meet small business owners and entrepreneurs determined to make big changes while visiting Auroville, a unique community of internationals and intellectuals. Here we met with members of Unlimited Tamil Nadu, an incubator for early-stage businesses seeking to solve social problems based in Auroville. We saw presentations by three entrepreneurs – presented in both English and Tamil, the local language – who were practicing pitches before a meeting with venture capitalists the next day. We heard from the owners of an herbal medicine business, a farming collective, and a farmer seeking to introduce Spirulina as a cost-effective way to boost nutrient-poor diets across India.
As amusing as it was to reflect on the ubiquity of Powerpoint presentations, it was truly beautiful to recognize the entrepreneurial spark and the commitment to community in the same way I’ve seen it before in San Antonio. We brainstormed with the business owners and the staff of Unlimited Tamil Nadu about how to reach more people, one of my favorite experiences during the month-long trip. One idea I shared, which turned out to be a hit, was Awesome SA and its concept of increasing community engagement with relatively small investment funds. So don’t be surprised to read about Awesome Auroville one day!
There were times I was overwhelmed with the intensely different culture swirling around me. But then something would catch my eye, and my brain would see something it recognized, and I could reassure myself that people are people everywhere. When it comes to friendliness, hospitality, community pride and plain ol’ hot, hot, HOT temperatures, I got to experience firsthand that San Antonio is in good company with an amazing country on the other side of the world.
But that being said, nothing can ever come close to Texas barbecue!
*Top image: Market scene in Hyderabad, showing off a shared love of color between Indian and Hispanic cultures. Photo by Jillian Reddish.